Mandalay and mosquitos

Trip Start Jan 02, 2013
Trip End Apr 25, 2013

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Bloody mosquitoes. If I miss one square centimeter of skin when plastering on the 50% DEET you can be sure the little buggers will find it and invite all their friends along. I've been bitten on the sole of my left foot and it's insanely itchy. It must have been a pretty desperate and stupid mosquito to fight through the dust and thick skin when it could have just bitten Jon.
We arrive in Mandalay still feeling a bit delicate and check into the Unity hotel.Dogs here are short and hairy ankle biters, strange. In the evening we have a fantastic Thai meal and catch up with Caroline Nixon and her med school mate Michelle. Caroline is partly responsible for our metamorphosis from junior doctors into fully fledged GPs and its so nice to see a friendly face. Caroline's Burmese is pretty impressive and secures our first trishaw ride. A trishaw is a bicycle with two back to back seats attached in the sidecar position. The poor man is pouring with sweat by the time he's dropped us at the restaurant, we're probably twice as heavy as the average citizen.

Early the next morning Jon, myself and Kim, a delightful German traveler we met in the airport cram into a taxi to get to Pyin Oo Lwin, north east of Mandalay. It's fascinating to hear about Kim's travels as she appears to have been almost everywhere! Impressively, she's done a vast amount as a solo traveler but likes to join up with others and we love her vibrant company and education on all things Oktoberfest. The taxi was booked the day before and is a 'shared taxi' essentially meaning that they can fill any spare seats with random people and it should reduce the price but we end up paying 6000 kyat each and the local bloke in the front pays 500. This is standard in Myanmar. A third of the way into the journey, the car screams to a halt and a man hurtles up to the boot and throws himself in before we take off again. He doesn't pay anything and appears to be a mate of the driver. Mandalay taxis seem to have a venting problem. Judging by the fumes in the cab and the way my eyes feel like they are bleeding, the exhaust vents straight into the cabin so we're very releaved to arrive at our destination.
Pyin Oo Lwin was founded by the British in 1896 as an elevated summertime escape from the heat. In 1915 the national botanic gardens were created over a 435 acre plot and we have made the 2 hour trip here especially to see them and get out of dirty dusty Mandalay for the day. We spend a fabulous day chatting and wondering around the gardens, aviary, orchid garden and lake, feeding hornbills and marvelling at the giant bamboo. We have lunch overlooking the lake and sit in the sun afterwards at which point I become aware that all the waiters are looking at me, whispering and giggling. This continues for about five minutes by which point I am beginning to feel self conscious and pissed off. It is then that one of them politely tells me that I am sat upon and leaning against the fence that they have just painted. Cue grumpy strop at brown striped shorts and shirt.

The following day we take the ferry down the Ayeyarwady river to Mingun where there are several impressive temples. Had the Mingun Paya been finished, it would have been the largest stupa in the world but work stopped when the king died in 1819, 29y after they started it. An earthquake ripped huge deep fissures in the unfinished structure in 1838 and now it just sits there slowly crumbling, the world's biggest pile of bricks.
Mingun also possesses the world's biggest uncracked bell. Weighing in at a whopping 90 tonnes the only bigger bell is in Moscow and is cracked.

We take the opportunity to visit a Buddhist home for the elderly whilst we are in Mingun. Most older people are cared for and absorbed into their extended families but there are some who have no family and no home. Men and women are segregated, each having their own bed, surrounded by all their personal possessions. It reminds me of the old hospital wards at St Mary's in Portsmouth but these people never go home. The toothless grins are aplenty bit I'm aware that there is another building seldom seen by visitors. Caroline has been visiting and working at this home for many years, providing support and access to medical advice and it is easy to see why this place could secure a place in many hearts. After a great deal of pushing, ground holding and persistence, we are allowed to see the nursing wing, hidden away across the courtyard and I suspect rarely seen by tourists. The building is little improvement on a twenty year old abandoned garden shed with small rooms each of which has a sink and glazed door to the outside pathway. The rooms are dark, dusty and several paynes of glass in each door are cracked or missing. There are holes in the roof and under these holes, behind these broken paynes are women too old and infirm to care for themselves. Confined to bed and probably freezing cold at night, these people are hidden away from the eyes of the Mingun crowds. Although the staff are clearly caring and kind, their love doesn't patch up the roof or buy medication. There are collection boxes in the main courtyard full of donations which evidently do not benefit the nursing wing. Our guide tells us that they just have to wait until the government fixes the roof which we all know might never happen. As a doctor and in my personal life I've always preferred to hug a Granny rather than play with babies and now more than ever, I want to open the eyes of the world to the suffering of our older generations, to give them equal compassionate standing in our charitable thoughts as orphanage children. Tears sting my eyes and I have to have a quiet moment by myself as the heartbreaking realisation washes over me that I can do nothing to help these women today. So there it is, emotional outpouring, sorry about that. But if you have an elderly neighbour or friend crippled with illness or simply loneliness, remember that you're human and one day that person will be you. Take them a meal, run them to their GP appointments or simply spend time talking to them. They are our nation's foundations, they are our history.
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